November Surprise

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True Manhood

For the past year and a half Dana Jennings has been writing and account of his experience with prostate cancer in the New York Times, from diagnosis, through treatment and recovery.The titles of his pieces always pull me in. After Cancer, the Echo of Desire . My Brief Life as a Woman . They announce that he is going to be talking about things that men don’t usually talk about. Since so much of my own life has been spent trying to make sense of the meaning of masculinity and male gender identity, and because I’ve grown so accustomed to the absence of any real discussion of these issues in the media, whenever any man writes about the meaning of masculinity in his life I feel an immediate sense of gratitude. Thank you for speaking about this.

But every time I venture to read one of Jennings posts, I find myself going through the same, confusing experience. I notice the title and get interested. But a few paragraphs in I find myself glazing over and feeling aggravated. Something puts me of and I stop reading before I’ve bothered to figure out what is bothering me so much. I went through this experience again trying to read his latest column, After Surviving Cancer, a Focus on True Manhood . Except that this time I forced myself to pay attention to what felt so wrong.

Two things that you need to know before I get into this. The first is that Mr. Jennings seems to me to be a very decent man. I truly wish him well. I’m glad that he’s making sense of his experience by writing about it and I appreciate the courage it takes to discuss these subjects publicly. And second…my own history. I myself am a cancer survivor. In my mid-twenties I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I lost a testicle in surgery, had (over the absurd objections of my doctor) sperm samples frozen, then endured radiation treatment and several years of follow-up testing before I was finally pronounced well. This was in the mid-Eighties, before anyone was even remotely talking publicly about what it might mean for a man to confront a simultaneous threat to his life and his masculinity. Over two decades later, I’m still alive and I have two beautiful sons. But the emotional impact of the cancer and its implications about my own masculinity still affect me, every day.

So why should I be so irritated reading a man openly discussing his experience with erectile dysfunction in the aftermath of cancer? I keep telling myself I should be grateful. It’s enough that someone is writing about it at all.

But then I read passages like this:

We founder in a mere surface culture of smirk, snark and innuendo. The greedy objectification of the body — in both women and men — accelerates, speeding so fast that the objections can’t even be heard over the roar of the mass media.

We are told to worship washboard abs and Everest biceps, improbably perky breasts and buns of titanium. It sometimes seems that every image spewed forth by the electronic media resonates with just one unsubtle subtext: sex.

The florid, non-sensical prose is bad enough. But the real mystery is how such truisms can be successfully passed of as insight. Decades ago, when feminist writers described these same phenomenon, it was revolutionary.Today it is received wisdom. Except when a man says it. When a man recites a pat description of the objectification of male sexuality, we stand up and (take a look at the comments following the piece) applaud.

Do we really give ourselves so little credit? Honestly, the cultural objectification of male sexuality pales in comparison to the cultural infantilization of men’s emotional capacity. Men are seen (and we tend to see ourselves) as emotional children. We are so pathetic, so emotionally incapacitated, that stating the obvious is the best we can manage.

As men we discount our own capacity when we buy into this narrative. We sacrifice our legitimate need to tell the harder truths about the pain and loss (and the consequent aggression and violence) that is woven into masculinity. And, inevitably, we retreat back into justifying and reinforcing the very stereotypes of masculinity that are the source of the problems in the first place.

Yes, my erectile function is still a work in progress, but I don’t feel diminished; I don’t feel that I’m less of a man. My voice is still as deep as a well, my eyes a steely blue. I still relish a strong stout, and I can hold forth on the arcane points of the safety blitz. (Though sometimes I am tempted to say, “It’s O.K., ladies, I’m harmless.”)

There is the dilemma of masculinity in a single paragraph.The sexualization and objectification of masculinity that Jennings was complaining about a few sentences earlier are in fact embedded within his defense of his own masculinity. He buys into the very concepts he claims he is trying to shuck off. Either we are John Wayne, dangerous behind our steely eyes, or we are Richard Simmons…emasculated…”harmless.” It’s one or the other.

The hard truth is that we have barely begun to do the work of imagining and creating a model of masculinity that transcends these tremendously damaging categories. Whatever “true manhood” may prove to be, it’s not this nicey-nice and spurious version of male emotional experience.

Libido comes and goes at odd hours, like a child home on a college break. But curiously, I feel that the life my wife, Deb, and I lead is more intimate than ever. I was the one who was sick, but we peered into the bleak chasms of cancer together. As I was buffeted by diagnosis, treatment and the aftermath, she was my advocate, my confidante, my unwavering caregiver. And everything she did was suffused by her love for me.

It was an intimacy beyond words. And believe me, I have a lot to live up to if the time comes for me to care for Deb.

True intimacy isn’t about the hydraulics of the flesh. It’s the smell of a certain shampoo in the hair, a passing touch in the kitchen, the taste of cold blueberry soup on a hot summer day, the gentle nostalgia of “Aja” by Steely Dan, and your heart melting at the sight of your wife of 28 years sound asleep after midnight — the murmur of HGTV having lulled her to slumber.

To start with, Jennings badly mis-defines the word intimacy. Intimacy is shared vulnerability, and that can take many forms. But intimacy is not the smell of a shampoo, it is not a passing touch, it is not a taste or a sound. That is called familiarity. He is right about one thing: true intimacy is not entirely about “the hydraulics of the flesh.” But he uses this point to obscure an equally important corollary point: that the hydraulics of the flesh permit a particular sort of intimacy which cannot be achieved in any other way.

That doesn’t mean that other forms of intimacy can’t be as deep as sexual intimacy. They are simply different.

To accept with sadness that other forms of intimacy will have to suffice for a loss of sexual functioning is an act of compassion toward oneself and one’s partner. But it is a lie to pretend that other forms of intimacy are equivalent and can replace sexual intimacy. Jennings wants (as we so often do as men, and as humans) to have it both ways, to receive compassion for the loss of sexual intimacy while simultaneously denying the true significance of sexuality in a man’s life.It doesn’t work that way. Which is why he winds up participating in the very objectification he claims to be opposing. It’s just that it happens on an emotional rather than a physical level. He’s adhering to the deadening code of male social communication: if you’ve been through something horrific, you can still talk about it publicly as long as you let everyone know that everything is fine.

Well, I’m here to say that everything is decidedly not fine. Everything is hugely screwed up when it comes to male sexuality and gender identity. It has been for centuries and we’re only just barely beginning to wake up and realize this. You might argue that this is where we have to start, with unadorned description of our experience. But I would argue that as long as the narrative is participating in the assumptions which caused the damage in the first place, it cannot possibly advance the cause.

We’ll know that we’re making progress when we start talking authentically about the entire spectrum of trauma that is woven into the socialization of boys, from circumcision to hazing rituals and everything in between. We’ll know that we’re making progress when men can speak those simple truths, with a bracing, honest rage.

©2010, Andrew Peterson, Ed D

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Andrew Peterson, Ed D, an author, composer and a psychotherapist. As a musician and a composer, his roots are in jazz piano, although these days he works out of his home studio, composing music for a variety of projects including independent films, dance performances, and audiobooks. In his psychotherapy practice he works primarily with men and that work has been significantly shaped by his extensive post-graduate training in attachment theory and attachment-focused psychotherapy. He also specializes in trauma work and he spent several life-transforming weeks as a volunteer mental health worker with the Red Cross South of New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. As a writer, he received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1989, where he started writing his first novel, Baptism for the Dead, about the dissolution of a Mormon family in Utah. That’s where he was born (raised Mormon, though he's long since parted ways with the church), and where he lived until he left to attend Swarthmore College. Several years ago he realized that after a decade or so of hard-core parenting his middle-aged brain was at serious risk of atrophying if he didn’t start giving it more exercise and stimulation. The impulse to keep his brain active in the face of tedium is a life-long habit, and that habit is the seed from which his forthcoming book grew. The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment (coming this Fall from Beyond Words Publishing) draws on the many disparate threads of my life experience. It contains a set of exercises which use utterly mundane and even absurd activities as vehicles for shifting your state of mind into a fuller awareness of the present moment. Because we all need more of that. He and his wife live in Missoula, Montana, with their two sons.

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